The Simply Complex Mind of Kellyn Acosta

LAFC and USMNT midfielder Kellyn Acosta has reached impressive heights: playing for his country at a World Cup and winning the MLS Cup with LAFC, but to name a few. Yet off the pitch, his enthusiasm for fashion, business and culture pins him as one to watch across all aspects of the game. &ASIAN spent an afternoon with him in LA to find out what makes the player a person.
Photo courtesy of Kellyn Acosta.
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The Simply Complex Mind of Kellyn Acosta

Simplexity (adv.): the elegant melding of the simple and the complex into something that is utterly other… and potentially a fitting word to describe Kellyn Acosta, the 28 year-old midfielder for Los Angeles Football Club and the US Men’s National Team. As he listens to his manager take him through his upcoming schedule whilst his friend and LAFC teammate Timothy Tillman chills next to him, Acosta spends much time musing through the different projects and opportunities that have come his way. As someone not overbearing in character, he tends to interject only when he has something particularly pertinent or important to say.

Timothy Tillman and Kellyn Acosta chat post-training. Photo: Aimée Kwan for &ASIAN.

A recurring topic of the day that is of particular contention: the custom Nike boots he hopes to wear during April’s El Trafico, the derby match that sees LAFC play against LA Galaxy. Kellyn is represented by Nike and the MLS has a partnership league-wide with Adidas, so any changes to his boot design - even for just one game - take time to be approved: a long process that merits many conversations, all of which can start to feel a tad frustrating.

“They just don't like when you have custom boots," explains Kellyn calmly. "They just wanna keep people in this, like, confined space. They don't want people having different messaging on [the boots]. People will paint their boots and write all sorts of things but they don't want that. So you've simply gotta get approved."

Frankness is very much a hallmark of Acosta, born to a Japanese-American father, an Black American mother, and with a Mexican step-father. It is with this wide breadth of life experiences via his background that seems to give Acosta such confidence in his convictions today, not just when it comes to who he is as a player, but also as to who he aspires to be the moment he steps off the pitch.

Acosta and LAFC manager Steve Cherundolo. Photo: Aimée Kwan for &ASIAN.

Two days after LAFC's win against Acosta's old club FC Dallas in March, during post-training he spends time talking to some local LA artists that have come to visit the club's training ground to watch the team train, kick ball with a few of the players and then chat to LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo and Kellyn himself. His enthusiasm when it comes to culture and fashion is well known to many who follow him. One of the first questions he asks me when we chat is I'm into fashion myself, what kind of style do I vibe with? What about music, films?

For him, fashion is more than just a fun means of expression; he understands the role and influence it can play when it comes to giving more exposure to soccer in the United States. Many footballers in Europe and South America, where football reigns supreme, have very strong brands when it comes to their own style and other endeavours off the pitch. In the US, where soccer is dwarfed by several other sports, athletes such as LeBron James, Steph Curry, Serena Williams, Odell Beckham Jr. and more are instead the ones that hold such strong cultural profiles in the public consciousness.

"When I have a game I sometimes already have an idea of what I want to wear," Kellyn explains to me, after also talking about how he tries to note and big up what other soccer players wear for game day fits as well. "Sometimes there are themes or subjects... but it's all subject to change. Sometimes it's whatever I feel in the moment."

Acosta and Tillman browse the latest fashion. Photo: Aimée Kwan for &ASIAN.

As we walk around downtown Los Angeles, he talks through ideas with his manager about how he can honour AAPI month in the fits he wears throughout May, and browses through not just the various high-end brands around him, but also photos of clothes that other contacts have sent him. When I start to talk about the connection between the growth of US Soccer and the MLS, with the growing interest of the lives of its players, Kellyn has many thoughts.

"I think in a way... when people are starting to pay more attention to it all it's like... you're doing something right, right?" he muses. "We like to say that when you have haters on mute, you're doing right in the right way. It's perfect because now they're taking notice of what we're doing. That's the whole point... you want people to follow you not just because of the player [you are] but because of everything that you're doing. That's on the field, that's off the field. So it's kind of everything rolled into one."

Photo: Aimée Kwan for &ASIAN.

With the USA set to be one of the co-hosts for the 2026 World Cup, and with the USMNT having impressed many at the 2022 edition of the tournament, the question remains as to whether soccer can truly become one of the biggest sports in the country, and if the men's team could ever become as dominant on the global stage as their women's team. Many of those questions lead back to the strength of the MLS as a league and the development of US soccer prospects. Acosta has had a front seat to how US Soccer has shifted and changed throughout the years, having never played club football outside his home country. His own development is a testament to the potential strength that lies in academies in the United States. He rose through the ranks at the FC Dallas Academy, one of the strongest soccer academies in the country, and with this he has much to say on how American soccer talent develops, especially in comparison to their counterparts in Europe and South America.

"Everyone is like, 'Oh, we want to copy what the Europeans are doing, right?'" he says. "But then when [European youth teams] come here and play against us, Dallas will beat them. Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Chelsea... So you're thinking, what is it? From 14 and under, these [American] academies do a good job. But then you have that age gap from around, 15 to 20 where in Europe, those players excel. They're still playing at a high level. But a lot of our guys, they might have pro contracts but they're not playing enough games, there's not enough competition and they might never see the field so they're losing a lot of their development during that age range when they should be getting better. Rather, they're plateauing or declining.

The US is so big that if you want to keep playing [against] the best academy teams: Dallas, LA, New York, Minnesota, you can't because it costs too much money. But by then it's too late. I was fortunate because I was already playing first team football. But not everyone has that opportunity, so you're missing out on all these players. So there might be a really good youth team, but then they drop off."

Photo courtesy of LAFC and US Soccer.

Yet he has faith in how US Soccer and the MLS will truly start to explode within the next five years, and in how much potential there is for the growth of the game overall. Even beyond soccer he talks at length about the business and viewership stats of other sports such as basketball, hockey and more, and is open about his thoughts as to where and how marketing is quietly changing viewership habits of the American people when it comes to sports. As a long-time Chelsea fan, he's been watching their not-so-great season (as of writing they're sitting 12th in the Premier League table) with much chagrin as he is aware how the tribulations of the team have been affecting non-American perceptions of how much Americans understand soccer.

American involvement in the game has grown over recent years not just through more American talent playing overseas or the expansion of the MLS, but also through American ownership of football clubs overseas. While Chelsea is but one example, I ask Acosta what he thinks of the success of Wrexham Football Club, that have just achieved promotion under the ownership of Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenny.

Photo courtesy of LAFC and US Soccer.

"Wrexham... that's different," he considers. "They had a whole plan and they're also able to invest due to their documentary, which they knew they could make because of the actors' platforms. They knew they could really take off in a different way and now they're playing friendlies versus Manchester United. You've got to combine entertainment with sport, right? Like LAFC had a show on Amazon and Angel City is going to do that with HBO and so you can really have people fall in love with the sport and think about it differently. Think of basketball and Space Jam. Or like, Bend It Like Beckham. You might not know soccer, but you know that movie.

I can see so many things, for example, the connections you can make with the environment, with the community, there's so much potential but... sometimes people are just not realising the potential that can come with implementing certain things that can really help soccer take off. Even things like accessibility for viewers... the MLS Apple TV deal, it helps. So people can actually watch games. You need to have the young generation fall in love with the sport and not want to try to be like just the LeBrons, but more like... well right now, they might not connect with the MLS like that at all. Whether it's through fashion, whether it's about personality, whether it's about how a player has his hair or whatever... I mean, think about this all the people that wanted to be like Dennis Rodman with the cornrows!"

Photo courtesy of LAFC and Kellyn Acosta.

Across both sports and culture, his keen interest in business and development keeps resurfacing and even his teammate Mahala mentions that he's very much a businessman, one to go to if entrepenurial inspiration strikes. I ask if he'd want to maybe set up his own fashion label or perhaps go into football management when his playing career is said and done. He shrugs: it's not that he hasn't thought about it, because he has, and even has a few irons in the fire, business-wise. He has his own foundation, The Kellyn Acosta Foundation, that helps support Disabled and disadvantaged youth. Often he muses on how being in some consultant role, whether for a brand, or in a sporting context, might be something that he'd be interested in doing one day.

But his day-to-day concerns are how he is as a good teammate on and off the field, and also as a dad, son and grandson.

Over coffee he chats with Tillman about how both of them have been learning more culinary skills of late. While for Tillman his best dish is a cheeseburger with tartare sauce and Acosta would hang his hat on chicken alfredo ("or cereal" he jokes), a recent experience making sushi has enhanced even further his pre-existent appreciation for the dish.

Tillman and Acosta relax in the sun. Photo: Aimée Kwan for &ASIAN.

"It's hard," he admits. "There is so much work that goes into it, cutting the fish a certain way, storing the ingredients a certain way, if not it won't look right when you present it. And they do it so fast!"

His earliest memories of sushi and other forms of Japanese cuisine come from his Japanese grandmother. He still retains much of his understanding of Japanese and can speak a little, although at the moment his Spanish skills are making more headway due to the many Spanish speaking players on the team. Yet because these Spanish speaking players come from all over, each with their culture and country's own slang and variations on the language, Acosta explains that can trip him up sometimes. But it's all good, in the name of trying to understand his teammates better.

"The very first day I came here, I arrived at the at the hotel and we went for dinner with the team," says Tillman, who came to LAFC just this February. "Kellyn was sitting right next to me, talking to me and we were just getting to know each other a little. We found out we have the same interests. He's really helped me a lot. And on the pitch I think he's just an important player for us. He knows how we play; he's a connection between everyone."

Mahala shows off a mark of his friendship with Kellyn. Photo: Aimée Kwan for &ASIAN.

"He's my big brother," asserts Mahala, one of LAFC's roster of young forwards. "He's takes care of me outside soccer and gives me advice. He's an amazing teammate and outside soccer, an amazing big brother. If there's anything I need, I call him. As a young player it's really helped me to be better."

The sense of duty, growth and self-awareness to those around him is something that comes across often when talking to Acosta. Even though it has taken time for him to reconcile different aspects of his identity - he recalls struggling with his Asian heritage when he was a child due to racism, and remembers moments when he felt he had to hide it completely to fit in - these days he is at much greater peace with who he is and what it means. There is so much complexity that exists in the story of anyone who is Asian-American or Black American, and for anyone whose identity stands within multiple facets of intersectionality that complexity is increased two, three, four-fold or more. Yet when speaking to Acosta, it almost seems like he has somehow figured it out.

On the occasions we talk about his identity more deeply, he acknowledges being Japanese-American, Asian-American, Black American quite beautifully: as if it is what it is, something that exists true, well and peacefully within him. What comes with that is a further determination to represent all those aspects of himself well, for all the good he knows such representation can do for the people that see him; whether that is for kids that feel they have someone like them to look up to, or for people that can learn more about Japanese or Asian intersectionality through him. It doesn't come without its complications, however, as anyone might expect.

Photo: Aimée Kwan for &ASIAN.

"People have said to me before that I'm not Asian-American," he recounts. "That I haven't been through some of the same struggles, so I can't be. I understand that [point of view], but then, what can I say? I am Asian-American. I can't change that, I am Asian-American."

So, back to simplexity, a concept that almost seems like it cannot survive in today's world, where even the most well-meaning soul can find themselves pushed and pulled between a myriad of different wants and needs from a myriad of different people and organisations, not to mention also from one's self. Yet Acosta seems to take it all in his stride, not needing to distill down his rich heritage into something digestible for the sake of it, for one's identity just is. He is proudly a mixture of different ethnicites and cultures, but is also just American. He is a soccer player, a keen fashionista, a business enthusiast and a philanthropist, but is also just someone who wants to do his best. For all the many terms and labels you could place upon him, he wears each one with such simple confidence and peace that you wonder how he all makes it look so easy.

Photo courtesy of LAFC.

It takes just under an hour for Kellyn's manager to finish going through everything on her checklist (with many tangents in-between), before everyone parts ways to get back home before the LA traffic becomes too heavy. As we walks back to the car park, we chat over his thoughts on representation in Hollywood before he calmly says he'll probably unwind at home after a busy day of training and schedules. It's good to take time to relax, especially when you're always on the go. It's all balance, so you can take on everything that you want to, and that you can see clearly when you do. To 'represent' means many things to Acosta, and he takes the weight of all that term means both seriously, and yet with the quietly hopeful pride that the positive things he believes in - whether for society, for LAFC and the MLS, or for US Soccer in general - will come to pass.

"He's always out and about," says his friend and LAFC and USMNT teammate Aaron Long. "He goes to a ton of events and he represents his heritage, whether it's being Black or being Japanese. He's always out in the community, representing for his fans and his people. I think the city of LA has embraced him and I think the national team fans have embraced him."

Kellyn Acosta can be seen playing for LAFC and the USMNT. He can be found on Instagram here.
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